I recently worked with a writer who was beside himself with despair. He has been writing for years. He has been writing in every genre. He has been writing in every form: poetry, novels, short stories, narrative nonfiction, screenplay, play, automatic writing, everything. He has tried writing partners, writing alone, following a schedule, writing at random, dictating, stream of consciousness, writing software, you name it. With back against wall and painted into his own little corner of literary Hell, he decides he needs consulting help and that this will, at long last, reveal to him the secrets of why his writing is going nowhere fast.
He knows he’s talented (and he is). He knows he’s a storyteller (and he is). And he knows this is the work he must do (and it is). So—why can’t he sell anything? And then the plaintive cry, “Isn’t it enough to be talented? What the hell to they want from me?” “They,” of course, meaning agents, studios, producers, etc.
And so, here lies the problem. And herein lies the lesson. In all his fussing, ruckus, commotion and tumult no one ever told him the greatest truth every writer needs to hear on day-one of their writing career: No! The beaches of Malibu are littered with the bodies of talented writers. Talent isn’t enough. “WHAT?!” Comes the shocked reply, “Then what the #@!% is?”
The response to this greatest truth is a single word: craft. Craft is what makes talent enough. Here was a guy who had a magical way with phrases, wording, subtext, and verbal imagery. But he didn’t know a semi-colon from a steak sandwich and was clueless about the basics of English usage. Beyond the idea of using three acts and having a main character, he had as much use for story structure principles as a concussion.
This poor soul was never told that craft informs talent; not the other way around. There are lots of talented people out there. In fact, everyone has a talent of some kind. Talent is part of who you are, your beingness. Talent is given (by God, Goddess, The Great Pumpkin, whoever). Craft is learned, taught by experience—often under the watchful eye of a master teacher, mentor, or drill sergeant. Craft is part of what you do. And here's the kicker: without craft, talent will always remain in potential; it will never be more than a pale reflection of what it could become.
Craft takes discipline, confidence, perseverance, and practice. Talent takes passion, intuition, trust, and spontaneity. Marry all these together and you find the artist. Lose or deny any one of them and you have the artisan. This is not to say that an artisan is less than an artist! No, no, no. In fact, artisans who master whatever craft ALWAYS find their talent and cannot help but become artists of that craft. But, there is a relationship that exists between craft and talent that must be understood. Even if you come at it through your talent first, you must always come back through craft to truly find the fullest expression of talent.
To be the artist, as writer, you must learn your craft. This means: grammar, spelling, punctuation, story structure principles, formats and styles, vocabulary and the tools of the trade. Then with discipline, confidence, perseverance, and practice, practice, practice master the trade; become a master artisan. This takes time. This takes effort. This takes work. This takes patience.
In fact, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, it also takes around 10,000 hours:
“The emerging picture … is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything. In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you, the number comes up again and again.” (Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Press, 2008)
This magic number of 10,000 seems to be the amount of time it takes the brain to absorb all the knowledge it takes to master any one subject. Let’s see, 10,000 hours divided by 2080 hours (the average number of full-time work hours in a year) gives 4.8 years. This means, writing 40 hours per week for almost 5 years will get you “phenom” status. Well, considering most of us writers only work on writing a few hours each day (if that) the time it takes to actually accumulate those 10,000 hours starts racking up. In fact, if you only write 3 hours per day, that means you only put in 1092 hours per year writing. Divide 10,000 by 1092 and you get—yikes!— 9.2 years to get your mastery gold star. Even more if you take off weekends and holidays! One is left thinking dental school is looking pretty darn good.
The good news here is that the hours are the hours; they will pass no matter what you do. So, use them wisely: practice, practice, practice. If you do, then something magical will happen. Craft skills lift. Talent, always present, begins to stir. Craft gets honed. Talent finds its avenue and begins to flow. Craft becomes second nature, elegant, graceful. Talent finds its voice and soars. Okay, kind of corny and romance novelish, but this is what happens. It's a beautiful thing. Craft is the door and talent is what passes through it from potentiality to actuality. In time, the two are indistinguishable. You are the craftsperson and the artist and there is no telling them apart. This is the master of their craft and the self-realized creator. This is what we all strive for and what takes a lifetime to evolve—AND WE NEVER FULLY GET THERE. As good as we get, despite the 10,000 hours, we still strive for more, to become more. This is the real mark of the master, not how many hours you’ve put in, but the humility to never settle and to know that the dance of craft and talent never stops.
So, when you are ready to pull out your hair because that success isn’t coming fast enough, or the the deals are more vapor than paper, remember—craft and talent; learn one to release the other. Learn your craft. And practice, practice, practice.
- More Story Talk articles by Jeff Lyons
- Michele Wallerstein’s Business of Screenwriting Column
- An Interview with Writer/Director Clare Kilner
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